LEXINGTON — The ballot is set. The campaign is in full swing. And with less than seven weeks until the decisive Democratic primary in the race to succeed Edward J. Markey in the US House of Representatives, this well-heeled town northwest of Boston has become something of a battleground.
Its voters tend to be liberal and show up at the polls on primary days. But none of the seven Democrats running for the Fifth Congressional District has a clearly defined electoral base here.
That means most of the candidates are working hard to win support in this wealthy enclave 15 miles northwest of Boston that Jim Shaw, cochairman of the Lexington Democratic Town Committee, called “up for grabs.”
The district, which covers all or part of 24 municipalities from Revere to Woburn to Framingham to Holliston, is heavily Democratic, so the party’s nominee is likely to win the special election for the seat.
But as the Oct. 15 primary approaches, there is not yet a frontrunner among the Democrats vying for the seat. Five of the Democratic contenders are current elected officials: Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian of Waltham, state Representative Carl M. Sciortino of Medford, and state Senators Will Brownsberger of Belmont, Katherine Clark of Melrose, and Karen Spilka of Ashland. Political observers see one of them as likely to win.
All five have worked to court progressive activists and have raised enough money to run viable campaigns.
All have geographic bases of support among voters who have cast ballots for them before, but beyond those strongholds lie big swaths of the largely suburban district in which no candidate is seen as having a leg up. That has made those places — especially ones with historically high voter turnout in special elections such as Lexington, Arlington, and the piece of Cambridge that is in the district — key targets in what is expected to be a relatively low-turnout race.
“If I were running, I would have my base and I would try to get into communities where there was no obvious frontrunner” said Philip W. Johnston, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “I think that’s what they’re trying to do.”
The candidates appear to be paying closer attention to towns and cities like this one.
Brownsberger and his team have canvassed Lexington twice in recent weeks, with volunteers going door to door. Koutoujian and Clark each opened a campaign office in Arlington this summer, just blocks from the border with Lexington. And Democrats in those two towns and Cambridge said all the elected officials have been making frequent appearances.
“They’ve all been in town, they’ve all spent time here,” said Aimee Coolidge, chairwoman of the Arlington Democratic Town Committee. “They’ve had a presence.”
But just because a town has become a favorite on the campaign circuit doesn’t mean its voters have made up their minds. Among the most involved Democratic activists in Arlington, Coolidge said, “we are split and have not congealed around a candidate.”
Tom Diaz, who is on the Lexington Democratic Town Committee, said he had gotten “calls from a couple of the candidates,” but remains undecided in the race. “I get the impression that a lot of my friends are like me and haven’t yet made up their mind,” he said.
Battleground towns are just part of the challenges facing candidates as they head toward the primary.
Each must try to catch the attention of voters who may be politically fatigued from a barrage of recent elections, at a time of year when most are still focused on summer vacations and the back-to-school scramble. The race is also fighting for attention in the shadow of a competitive Boston mayoral election that often gobbles up headlines as it moves toward a Sept. 24 preliminary election.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the Fifth District Democratic primary is that the field is both crowded and strongly liberal, making it hard for candidates to differentiate themselves in a race where turnout is expected to be underwhelming.
“The fact is: the turnout will be driven completely by the campaigns,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. “There is no other race on the ballot; people won’t casually saunter out to vote because someone told them there’s an election.”
While the Democratic candidates are expected to advertise on cable, broadcast television advertising, with its wider reach, appears likely to be prohibitively expensive for most candidates in this race. That could put an added emphasis on grass-roots organizing.
But that work won’t be easy in such a low-profile race.
On a bench outside a Lexington Starbucks this summer, resident Mark McGuire, 30, a registered Democrat, said he keeps up with the news and supports Markey.
But asked about the special election to replace him, McGuire shrugged.
“I haven’t heard anything about it,” he said. “Haven’t put that on my radar yet.”
The two other Democratic candidates who collected enough signatures to appear on the ballot are Arlington resident Martin Long and Paul John Maisano of Stoneham.
There are three Republicans running for their party’s nomination: Harvard nanophysics researcher Mike Stopa of Holliston; businessman and attorney Frank J. Addivinola Jr. of Boston; and actuary Tom Tierney of Framingham. The special general election is set for Dec. 10.